Jenna and Jenessa, ages 6 and 7, were recently enjoying a sunny, cold Christmas Day in Hutchinson, Kansas, by playing outside. Not far away was a pond, frozen over for the winter. They walked out onto the ice to slide and skate around, as little children often do, until about 20 feet from shore the ice ruptured beneath them. Both girls plunged into the frigid waters.
What would you do? How would you help them? If you fell into a frozen lake, how would you survive?
Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a thermophysiologist from the University of Manitoba, has spent his career studying humans' response to cold-water immersion. He has created a survival strategy endorsed by the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS as well as many rescue agencies in the U.S. and Canada.
Remember 1-10-1, he says, and you will know what to do in a cold-water survival situation.
Issue: Cold Shock Response
During the first minute you will experience involuntary gasping breathing and hyperventilation.
What to Do: Keep your head above water. Control your breathing. Do not panic, as panicking will make you breathe faster, and thrashing your limbs around will chill you more quickly.
Issue: Cold Incapacitation
Your breathing will stabilize and you should have up to 10 minutes worth of "purposeful movement," even in ice water, before you cannot move your arms and legs effectively.
What to Do: Swim to where you fell in—the ice is likely thickest there. Stretch your arms out onto the ice. Kick your feet until your body is horizontal and then pull yourself out of the water quickly with your arms. Do not stand up! Roll towards the shore and exit the ice.
If you are unable to exit the water, you have up to 1 hour before your body's cooling core temperature will render you unconscious.
What to Do: Your arms will freeze to the ice. Keep your head above water and wait for rescue. (Some men have survived because their beards froze to the ice and kept them afloat until rescuers arrived.)
It's that simple: 1 minute to control your breathing; 10 minutes to escape; up to 1 hour to wait for rescue.
Jenna and Jenessa were too young to understand much of human physiology, of course, but they knew enough to keep their heads above water and scream for help. Bud Brown, whose house adjoins the pond, saw the girls struggling and rushed to their aid. He dialed 911 and then hurried to his shed to scrounge up a rope, which is a great idea. Bud reconsidered, though, when he saw one of the girls slip under the surface. He then waded out into the chest-deep water smashing the ice with his fists as he went and pulled both girls to safety. Which is pretty awesome, if you ask me. Bud Brown, you are the man!
Check out this video of Dr. Giesbrecht personally demonstrating his 1-10-1 survival strategy (yes, he actually jumps into an icy lake). If you'd like to learn more about cold-water immersion, hypothermia, frostbite and a host of other wilderness medicine topics, please join me sometime on a wilderness first aid or wilderness first responder course from WMI of NOLS.
So, have you had any close calls out on the ice?